Professor Joseph S. Bodenheimer

How Does the Torah View Sustainability

The central theme of this conference – Sustainability, Resilience, and the Torah – raises the fundamental question: Is there a well-defined Torah attitude to environmental concerns? More specifically, is sustainability of resources on Planet Earth at all of concern to a Torah-observant society? Setting aside increasingly popular scare-mongering, and disregarding politically correct attitudes, it is worth looking to our own sources, to try to find out whether there exists a clear Torah attitude to the need to control our insatiable appetite for consumption of the Earth’s limited resources. If such an attitude does not yet exist, should we not endeavor to develop one?

Firstly considering the written Torah: If the initial instructions to pre-Noachides were to live a vegetarian life, does that not teach us something about the Creator’s attitude? Then, since the Tower of Babel was built with the declared purpose of self-preservation, why was the response of the Almighty negative? Further, the control of food in Egypt by Joseph sounds like a positive plan to maintain and ensure food supplies, but there was a price: the Egyptians were enslaved to Pharaoh. Is full environmental control only possible in an enslaved society? The 40 years of Manna in the wilderness are described on the one hand as a gift from Heaven, but the Manna is also described by Moses as a suffering. Finally, should the prohibition of Bal Tashchit be understood as a Mitzvah to preserve nature’s resources?

More examples of sustainability issues can also be found in other books of the Bible.

In the Talmud and the Midrashim there are several sayings of our sages that encourage concern for the environment and self-restraint. On the other hand, if the world is meant to exist for 6000 years, meaning that we have only 220 years to go, why bother about long-term effects?

In this presentation these ponderings will be discussed, in an effort to understand the Torah attitude to sustainability.